Elephants in the Arctic

It’s nice to be tinct. You have friends. You’re somebody. If you become endangered, you’re very special.

Once extinct, you don’t get any of that. Just peace at last – no headlines, no deadlines, no peer group, thus no peer pressure.

But now even that small consolation is under siege, as scientists scheme to give new life to extinct species like the Southern gastric brooding frog of Australia – extinct since, well, the 1980s – and it’s surely a poorer world without them. The frogs, I mean, not the scientists.

Then there’s the ibex that used to frighten skiers in the Pyrenees. The ibexes (ibices?) flourished until they were killed off to harvest their horns when Pyrex kitchenware was all the rage. Actually, that’s not what happened, but the last Pyreneean Ibex did perish in 1999.

The technology is now in hand to rekindle the extinguishment.

These recent departures are ripe for cloning because their DNA is readily available. More ambitious geneticists are hoping – just hoping – to restore Neanderthals or woolly mammoths.

As Gina Kolata points out in the New York Times, the passing of the woolly mammoth left us without elephants in the arctic. The mammoths once knocked down millions of trees, leaving snow-covered grasslands to reflect the sun’s heat back into the stratosphere. And they trampled snow, strengthening the permafrost, keeping its methane locked up instead of being released as a greenhouse gas. Were the woolly mammoths to return, we might see global warming slowed or reversed in the north, or so goes the dream.

New relevance for elephants!

As for Neanderthals, we all have some of their genes – about 3% of our own genome — but kindly spare us the intrusions necessary to catalogue and collect them. “It would be a really bad idea,” says Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences.

As quoted by Ms Kolata, Greely also questions the wisdom of trying to resurrect the passenger pigeon. We used to have three to five billion of them.

“They would take days to cross a city,” Greely said. “They left cities covered with an inch of guano.”

No serious researcher expects to recover viable DNA from 65 million years ago, a la Jurassic Park. As for more recent extinctions, we can happily relinquish the phantasmagoria of zombie pigeons encrusting our cities, but woolly mammoths were late survivors, too. They were last seen around 4,000 years ago, and their frozen DNA may yet be found.

So let us go on dreaming the mammoth dream. We can’t imagine the antarctic without its penguins. How can we leave the arctic bereft of its elephants?

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.